Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sea Cows! Albatross! Constellations! Oh My!

We set sail from Honolulu bound for Oakland in the afternoon, a rare sailing time which afforded us a spectacular view of the city and the island as we departed on what is known in the industry as “The Pineapple Run.”  The ever-present rainbows milled in the factories of the ever-present cloud-cover over Oahu’s drenched, tropical summit sent us merrily on our way.  Mahalo nui.  Aloha.
"Swing her around!" In the turning basin.
The view from my office- aka "the stern."

The night skies this run have been dominated by the northern sky out our port window- Ursula Major and Cassiopea pinwheeling around the “Little Bear,” offset by Cepheus and Auriga like the teeth of the gears that drive the rest of the heavens around the axle of Polaris; out our starboard window has been nothing but dark clouds belonging to the low pressure cell assaulting our quarter with 4 meter swells since leaving the protection of Oahu’s lee, setting up a wicked roll that has thrown my personal effects into perpetual disarray.  

Produce in Honolulu's Chinatown.
Hawaiian bananas in Chinatown.

Although I know it isn’t possible, it seems every time I look to the zenith of this nightly drama Scorpio has been there, pointing back the way we came, Libra and Sagittarius boxing the constellation in faintly, and - somewhere astern shrouded in the mists, stack gas, and humidity - is Capricorn, straddling the ecliptic like Billy Goat Gruff on a stone bridge.  Jupiter has glared hotly from our quarter as if angry at being shown the back of our shoulder.

Normally when I see albatross they are out alone, 500 miles from the nearest shore, unhindered by wind or waves.  Yesterday morning the ship had, curiously, four laysan albatross that repeatedly raced hither and thither the length of the ship hunting squid in our wake much like red-footed boobies (“boobies!”) hunting for flying fish… it seemed peculiar behaviour to me, however, Seabirds of the World said this is their common practice and now I must believe my own lying eyes.  The birdwatching third mate of the relieving watch informed me a fifth bird joined them later.

On close inspection I noted that two of the birds were graceful and well-versed in the art of strafing the bridgewing where I stood, giving me a quick sidelong glance each time as if to say “good morning, biped monkey,” or- as I suspect- merely to repeatedly examine me and conclude “Not-Food.”  

The other two birds, however, flew awkwardly and unsteadily so I concluded they were youngsters out with their wise elders, learning the tricks of the trade.  The birdwatcher had a name for where in the life-cycle these juveniles were, a term I have since forgotten, but he also told me of the Royal Albatross who repeatedly circumnavigate Antarctica, mate for life, and that researchers are now learning can live more than 60 years.

Oh, and two more "green flashes" were seen by this sailor... I am becoming adept at spotting when they're going to send the sun on its way under the horizon.
Sunset over an open lifeboat (yes, they still do exist).

The view afforded the 4x8 Watch.

Meanwhile, in the mundanity of shipboard life, one of my shipmates has earned the ire of the crew with horrible flatulence that sets him to giggling like a twelve year old when he stealthily offends us all.  Well, today was the last straw for me and I vowed revenge.  I have mixed a concoction of sour milk, yogurt, yeast, and sardines with which I will saturate a rag and place it in his air vent.  I needed a distraction from the routine, anyway.

I saw a low, bushy blow as we approached the traffic separation scheme that directs vessel traffic into Oakland, but there weren’t enough identifying details to pin down what it was.  I suspect either a pilot or a humpback whale, but that’s merely guesswork.  The shearwaters were out hunting for breakfast as the sun came up, and by the time I drove us under the Golden Gate Bridge and hung a right just after Alcatraz, the day had turned glorious and warm.  No more rolling like a drunken whore.  No more freezing in the North Pacific Current.  No more sea watches.

Yeah... as a matter of fact, this is where I drive the ship... and this is what I see.

I’m on the beach, car is rented, and I don’t have to work for another 16 hours!  Holy cow!

Oh… I almost forgot to mention:  We had special containers full of live cows on this trip.  The person who cares for them was aboard, too- a job position called a “stocktender,” but I didn’t get an opportunity to talk to him about his job at all.  What I did get, however, was a surprise while clearing decks when leaving Hono- a face full of cows!  I thought they might mind the rolling, but they were a happy-looking lot, shuffling about and looking at me bright-eyed and curious-like, as if they always hung out in boxes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I had “nuthin’ to look at but the cows.”

The stern of this ship is a mess, but a mess by design.  It took me a minute to
learn how it all works (we send out breast lines on the bite, a pain in the butt),
but now I have it pretty much dialed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Mutiny, Whales, and UFO's

I saw how life was going to be my first day on here and I began this trip pissed off and angry, having suffered similar voyages with equally disagreeableness on all quarters; my first day working with the bosun I determined that I didn’t like his tone of voice and I let him know that “we're apparently having a communication problem,” and from that moment on he gave me much more latitude than he gave the rest of the gang.

But I still had to deal with his micromanagement, and watch with loathing as he belittled, confounded, and verbally abused the rest of the gang.

So what started as a whispering campaign and idle threats of collective action against him became much more when the bosun “laid hands upon” a sailor as we shifted docks (moved the ship) a few days ago.  So the gang mutinied against him and ran him off, whereby a new bosun- much more to our liking- took his place before setting off for Hawaii.  The mate and the old man seem much relieved, but not nearly as much as we sailors.

After a morning in which yelling filled our passage way, fists pounded on closed doors, verbal confrontations filled with threats of legal action flew thither and yon, and the rumor mill churned out excited whispers and stares more so than words, my ship’s dark cloud lifted, scattered by the glorious aroma of schadenfreude carried upon the piping hot steam that emanated from a deserved slice of humble pie.  The ship suddenly became a happy place.  My new campaign is to keep this bosun aboard until they lay the ship back up in May.

We set sail in good spirits.  The waters were squid-ink black that churned a color of green that defies classification- not olive, not jade, not forest, nor lime- it was the color of the primordial ooze that puked up us land creatures that now zig and zag across her surface like so many waterbugs on the still waters of a pond.

A day out of Oakland I saw a whale blowing.  The blow was symmetrical, wide, and low.  Then I saw the head- square and out of the water.  Finally, I saw a fluke with curved tips.  My first thought was “sperm whale” because the head was definitely that of a sperm whale.  But the fluke of the sperm whale doesn’t have curved tips.  And they have an asymmetrical head with a single blowhole on the side that produces a blow that is forward and to the right.

The only other contender, based on that distinctive head, was a blackfish (long finned pilot whale).  The head was similar- but not the same- and the blow and the fluke is more like what I saw.  It was in territory where I was most likely to see humpbacks, which I didn’t see.  

But that head was so unmistakable I have to go with sperm whale- the fluke could have been curled so as to create the appearance of curved tips, and the blow could have been into the wind or the aspect of the whale such that “forward and to the right” happened to be directly in my direction, making it appear symmetrical, wide, and low.  Plus, what I saw was substantially larger than a blackfish.

Two days later the mate happened to look out his cabin window and he saw me carrying lashing gear across a hatch cover as two humpback fully breached fifty feet from where I was obliviously working.  The bridge team saw it all, too.  At the time I was laughing at the gang for walking up the weather side of the ship in 40 knot winds, struggling, when they could have sauntered up the leeward side.  Now I know if they’d used their sailorly know-how they would have been rewarded with that wonderful spectacle I was denied- humpback acrobatics are wonderful to behold and never fail to awe.

On watch, yesterday, I kept imagining I peripherally saw the tell-tale splash of water that alerts me to the presence of Dahl’s porpoises.  But I saw nothing.  I kept starting from my chair, going for the binoculars, then shaking my head and sitting back down, convinced my imagination was conjuring things from the whitecaps of the surrounding seas.  The mate noticed my attention and actually spotted what I had failed to see: pacific white-sided dolphin.  They’re almost as fast as Dahl’s porpoises and equally as hard to spot.

I have exhaustively reported sightings of white tailed tropicbirds, magnificent frigate birds, various and assundry albatross and shearwater.  Also, it is no great secret that I love the red footed boobies and yell “boobies” on the bridge every time they are present.  But a strange little almost-raptor-like thing landed on the foremast yesterday that had me pouring through my seabird book, puzzled.  

It made me recall the night I transported that sleeping osprey from Cape Canaveral to Charleston on the foremast of the USNS Waters- it seemed that raptor-like to me (its behavior added to the effect).  What I finally decided it was, basically by eliminating everything in my identification book that it couldn’t be, was a pomarine skua- a critter I haven’t seen before (or if I did then I didn’t know I was seeing it).  The third mate (an avid bird watcher) told me with a perfectly straight face, as is the seafarer custom, that it was “a seagull.”

The weather has been OK- some lumpy seas and overcast skies, but pleasant, nonetheless.  I was lucky enough to notice the horizon blazing orange at sunset, yesterday, beneath a thick layer of cloud cover.  It was the color that heralds the green flash, so I set up with the binoculars and waited, and sure enough, I caught quite the extraordinary display.  The Practical Navigator says the weather has to be clear, but I think the only requirement is great visibility… because that’s what my own lying eyes have told me.

Today is my birthday, so when I turned-to for overtime the gang sang me happy birthday on the stern.  The bosun gave me a cush job (painting fresh work inside the lifeboat) and then after lunch we did fire and boat drills.  Tomorrow, due to international law (known as the Manila Amendments to the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchstanding) I can only work 2 hours of overtime in the morning because we arrive in Hono at 2200, where I then become a dayman.  My sleep schedule will get dumped on its head.  Again.

I saw the theatrical performance I have described before- a flock of birds swarming a school of fish, circling and diving like mad, and off to the side a whale, perhaps the playwright directing the entire thing.   I couldn’t get a good enough look at it to identify… but it was barnacle encrusted and I hope it was one of the endangered whales (Right or Gray), although neither are listed as sailing those waters.

Jupiter has been blindingly bright all the way across.  I finally saw good stars last night- Cassiopea on the right beam, the union of vela and carina which I call the “pseudo-crux” on the left, and the three amigos (taurus, orion, canis major) overhead.  I usually don’t see “unidentified objects” which can’t be rationally explained, but this trip I saw two such objects which have left me puzzling.

That bright dot is Jupiter.

One object flew high and fast across the sky, similar to a satellite, but then turned and disappeared (satellites, artificial or otherwise, do NOT do that).  The other flew slow and low, brighter than everything else, then a cloud obscured the view for a few seconds, and when the cloud was passed… nothing.  It had vanished.

So we just finished docking in Hono.  Dock at 0200, shift (move the ship) at 0530, start work at 0800, get knocked off at 1000 for STCW compliance (sleep regulations) then be back at the ship by 1730 to shift again.  These are the continuing voyages of the steamship Matsonia.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Hall, San Francisco

Photos of The Hall in San Francisco:

This model is about 4 feet tall.

To those lost at sea.

Stain glass detail

"The Board," as in- "What jobs are posted on the board?"

Monday, March 9, 2015

Just Another Day in Port.

Large quantities of soot build up in the stacks when the ship's engine runs day in and day out.  To keep the soot from building up to dangerous levels and creating conditions that make a stack fire possible, they "blow tubes," which is a fancy way of saying the engineers throw coarse walnut shells into the exhaust and then they rev the engine, a by-product of which is ash raining down on the leeward decks.  It accumulates on everything and it becomes the problem of the sailors, because- after all- we are the glorified janitors of the sea.

We spent the last week washing the 02 deck, the RO RO ramps, the main deck, the house and all the house decks and ladders.  Washing consists of applying either citrisol (degreaser) or RSR (Rust Stain Remover), a mild acid that- duh- removes rust stains, and then pressure-washing it all back off.  And pushing piles of ash from blowing tubes with high pressure water towards scuppers and drains, and at the end of the day, off the ship.

Today, halfway through the process, we were halted by the port engineer and the mate then instructed us to finish the job with mops, that all water on decks was to be removed and no more applied.  I don't know why... most likely they were worried about the diesel tank that sprung a leak and had to be drained (about two cups of which managed to escape our best containment efforts but were cleaned- thoroughly- with a non-coagulating cleaner).

So yes, today I swabbed the deck with a mop like a pirate sailor of yore.  Unlike them, however, the soot from blowing tubes was soon spread out in a thin layer- it didn't take long before the entire ship was a sloppy mess.  It truly looked heinous.  We were instructed to dump the dirty mop water on the 02 deck (freshly citrisoled and pressure washed) and spread it out.

In other words, I got paid to undo every single bit of work I was paid to do last week.

Which proves my theory- Most work on ships is make-work designed to keep the unlicensed sailors busy so they don't get into more trouble than what they already get into.  Other sailors don't understand this and get frustrated, but I clearly get it and find it absolutely hysterical... it's when I start telling everyone "I'm just happy I get to be a part of it all."

And I am.  The absurdity of it all is what keeps me going.  And laughing at things nobody else seems to find quite as funny.  So as I splashed dirty water onto the bright white paint of the house while swabbing decks, and as I dumped dirty water onto the decks I just cleaned, I was laughing.  The scowls of some of the other guys just made me laugh that much harder.

The best part of it all?  They pay me to do it.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Here We Go Again!

Last Thursday at 1030 I threw down for a job that wasn’t expected aboard the SS Matsonia (yeah, a steam ship).  One other person threw their card down, but I had over a month seniority on him and the job was mine.  I was told to be there at 1300, after getting my “fit-for-duty.”  Um… Not possible.  Turns out it was no big deal- I got there at 1500 and the ship was a ghost town… which is a good sign- It means the Chief Mate likes to hit the beach.  I signed on with the old man, left my documentation with him, then went back ashore for some organic, non-ship groceries and one last shoreside dinner.

Underway, Making Way

Smallest wheelhouse ever!  It is positively tiny!

My quarters for the next unknown period of time.

The see-no, speak-no, hear-no hula monkeys are weirdly appropriate on the bridge.

We cast off at 0600 the next morning and I drove her out of Honolulu.  Now, my first day aboard, I am already tired of one guy’s stories and since I didn't sleep last night I’m also in a foul and nasty mood.  

On this ship I am the 4x8 watchstander, which means I am on the “work til you drop watch” and the “steer the ship in and out of port” watch.  It is also the watch with the Chief Mate- which can be a crap shoot, and luckily, I won the jackpot (so far)… he’s sharp, mild mannered, and we share a lot of the same musical, literary, culinary, and waterborne sporting interests.

Additionally, the 4x8 Watch is the Sunrise and Sunset Cruise, because I see both every day, and as we approach Oakland I have already seen at least one good one and some pretty spectacular crepuscular rays- those backstays of the sun that rain down from the clouds like golden downpours on the horizon.

Sunset over the Pacific.

Torrential crepuscular rays.

The bosun is a micromanager who has already “lost the gang” and irritates the crap out of me.  The delegate (since he is so much of a character I will henceforth refer to him as “Muppet”) doesn't like him, which is a good thing for me, and here’s how:  If I don’t decline any overtime, the bosun can’t deny me the opportunity to work; if one sailor gets to work overtime, I get to as well, a lesson I learned vividly aboard the Polk (told in posts sometime around April and May of 2013).

There is a term known as “slow-belling,” which alludes to the telegraph used by the bridge to tell the engine room how many turns (RPM) to make; it also refers to the speed of the bosun’s requests being fulfilled, and right now Muppet is slow-belling the bosun.  Everyone knows what’s going on in this feud, but the sincerity of the looks of confusion on Muppet's face when the bosun begins to fray, and the convincing manner with which he pretends to be “wounded” by the bosun’s barbs further feeds his anger and I have already had several of those “I can’t believe I get paid to be here” moments of suppressed laughter and quick, furtively shared looks amongst all the other sailors; they can’t believe they are getting paid to be here, either.

I’ve seen two humpbacks a day out of Hawaii, a school of common dolphin, a frigate bird, several red footed boobies (yay! boobies!), and countless wedge-tail shearwaters.  We’ve rolled quite a bit, but this old ship rides nice and doesn’t have all the rattles the newer ships seem to develop at their “particular” RPM’s.  The President Polk used to get this hammering vibration at 78 RPM that would wake the dead.  The Manukai just rattles.  The Waters is diesel electric and uncannily silent, as the CIA wanted when they commissioned her, which is bad for us sailors because the constant roar of a ship hides a lot of irritating noises. This old girl I'm on now makes just the right amount of noise... with earplugs and the fan on high nothing will wake me.

As it looks now, we’ll be in Oakland for 8 days; then back to Hono and back here, again; we’ll be laid up for two weeks (trip home!) then we’ll pick up the China run, but whether it’s for one or two runs is anyone’s guess… whatever is the plan now is subject to change utterly and means nothing, but it sounds like a great schedule so far (note: since I wrote this it has changed twice)!

So this morning, a week after driving out of Hono, I drove us into Oakland.  Per Muppet's 43-years-at-sea-instructions I needed to have change in my pocket when going under the great span of the bridge for luck, so I fetched a silver dollar from my quarters (it isn’t the quantity, it’s the quality, right?) and we sat on the deck bitching about the bosun as we sailed in to the Bay, as sailors have always done. That bridge is quite a sight from the water, that’s for sure.

An exhaustive aside: Sailors in my union drive the ship for an hour before their relief takes over for an hour... so it becomes hour on, hour off when quarter-mastering (driving the ship out of it!). The only tedium of driving a ship is numb feet and a sore lower back from hunching over the console, chasing the compass 'round and 'round... so I snapped the photo of the bridge on my hour on standby between the two hours I was driving...

As it happens, Muppet is my relief. "How is it," you may ask, "that you were sitting with your relief bitching about the bosun?" After all, if I'm not on the wheel, he should be- the opportunity to sit and bitch with him shouldn't have been possible.

Let me clarify (see if you can follow these machinations)- the bosun decided to inextricably use the "backwatch" (those most recently off the watch) to relieve me. This man came up a half-hour early, per the bosun's instructions; HE shouldn't have been relieving me, and the correct person shouldn't be relieving me for another half hour, in any case.

As I have explained, exhaustively I'm afraid, sailors play stupid games... this game was a timing game that results in the person on the wheel (me) finding himself on the stern with a mooring line in his hand instead of the wheel in his hand- a total drag if you're dressed for the wheelhouse, not the deck. By sending the wrong man up when he did, the bosun was trying to kick me off the bridge while simultaneously punishing Muppet (he got denied time on standby).

THAT is how it came to be that instead of Muppet standing a watch on the wheel and me on standby in my room reading my kindle that we were, instead, plotting, scheming, bitching on the deck aft of the house as we went under the bridge. Another aside: I was at the wheel when we came alongside the dock, so he partially failed. Additionally, now the comptroller knows the score and suggested we "fix the problem."

Let the games begin!

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And now I sit in a coffee shop in the heart of Oakland, in Jack London Square, resisting the urge to draw a forced parallel between me and Buck, and my own The Call of The Wild;  I’m sure every blogger who has ever sat behind their laptop in this coffeeshop has- tragically- done something exactly like this.  

Instead I’ll mention the Jack London story (the name of which I cannot remember) of the two miners with a fortune of gold who threw the food off their dogsled to make room for their wealth, but overloaded it, killing the dogs through their over-exertion; eventually both men succumbed to starvation, madness, and their mutual greed-induced, lonely and cold demises. Like sailors, trading vast expanses of their life for gold. I'm just sayin'...

OK! Time to get groceries! I am on shore and I have a rental car- Woo Hoo!